Sunday, July 12, 2009

Considered Forthwith: Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

Welcome to the 16th installment of "Considered Forthwith."

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies.

Well, DK Greenworks week has come and gone, but the group lives on. Click the link and join us. In keeping with the green theme, this week I examine the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Here are the members of the committee:

Democrats: Barbara Boxer, California, Chair; Max Baucus, Montana; Thomas R. Carper, Delaware; Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey; Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland; Bernard Sanders, Vermont; Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota; Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island; Tom Udall, New Mexico; Jeff Merkley, Oregon; Kirsten Gillibrand, New York; Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania.

Republicans: James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma, Ranking Member; George V. Voinovich, Ohio; David Vitter, Louisiana; John Barrasso, Wyoming; Mike Crapo, Idaho; Christopher S. Bond, Missouri; Lamar Alexander, Tennessee.


There is a connection between public works projects and the environment since the construction of things like highways, bridges, dams, and levees invariably affect the environment. In addition, this committee handles some economic development issues as there is often a connection among creating jobs, undertaking public works projects, and protecting the environment.

According to the committee's history, a Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds was formed in 1837 to oversee the development of federal buildings Washington, DC. During the committee reorganization of 1947, the committee came to be known as the Committee on Public Works.

As the federal government began to take on more and more public works projects, like the interstate highway system, the committee's power and relevance grew.

During the environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Congress took a greater role in environmental protection. The Public Works Committee took the lead in passing the 1970 Clean Air Act and the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act. The Committee got its present name and even greater authority over more policy areas, notably endangered species and civilian nuclear power, in 1977.

Somewhere along the way, the committee also picked up jurisdiction over regional economic development since this also involves public works. More on this below.

Note that there is also a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources with some overlapping jurisdiction.

The Committee's formal jurisdiction is as follows:

1. The following standing committees shall be appointed at the commencement of each to act until their successors are appointed, with leave to report by bill or otherwise on matters within their respective jurisdictions:

1. Air pollution.
2. Construction and maintenance of highways.
3. Environmental aspects of Outer Continental Shelf lands.
4. Environmental effects of toxic substances, other than pesticides.
5. Environmental policy.
6. Environmental research and development.
7. Fisheries and wildlife.
8. Flood control and improvements of rivers and harbors, including environmental aspects of deepwater ports.
9. Noise pollution.
10. Nonmilitary environmental regulation and control of nuclear energy.
11. Ocean dumping.
12. Public buildings and improved grounds of the United States generally,including Federal buildings in the District of Columbia.
13. Public works, bridges, and dams.
14. Regional economic development.
15. Solid waste disposal and recycling.
16. Water pollution.
17. Water resources.

(2) Such committee shall also study and review, on a comprehensive basis, matters relating to environmental protection and resource utilization and conservation, and report thereon from time to time.

Environmental protection

I won't get into a full discussion of all of the environmental protection statutes since that could take up multiple posts, but a few laws deserve mention. The big one is the Cap and Trade Bill. Initially, there was talk that the Senate would take up the bill soon, but Chairwoman Boxer has decided to hold off consideration until after the summer break.

Other than that, a handful of major laws form the basis of U.S. environmental policy and all of them fall under this committee's jurisdiction and most are enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency. These laws include the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act. For a full list of EPA enforced laws, click here. The Fish and Wildlife Service has information about endangered species.

Two technical notes. First, most new environmental policy takes the form of amendments to existing statues rather than new laws. A major exception is the current cap and trade bill, which represents a major new program rather than tweaks to the clear air act.

Second, the regulations that polluting industries are always griping about are usually rules issued by EPA and other executive branch agencies. Rules are technical policy while the act is a more of a broad framework. Congress can pass all kinds of laws saying that we need clean water, but it is up to the EPA to write the regulations that will make that happen.

This system is problematic on one level since these rules are indeed written by Washington DC bureaucrats -- rather than elected officials -- and influenced by both industry and environmental protection lobbyists. Take a really wild guess which one has more money. This is your motivation to join and donate to groups like The Sierra Club, which recently stopped its 100th coal plant from opening, from and The World Wildlife Federation. On the other hand, members of Congress do not have the expertise to write rules/regulations, so they defer to the experts while also conducting oversight to ensure that the rules are fair and effective.

Public works

I have to giggle a little bit and then get really depressed when I hear the small government advocates complain about public works projects like highways, bridges, levee and dams. The problem, of course, is that the private sector has no particular incentive to build these things. Even if they did, the final product would serve the interests of those who built them, and those interests are not necessarily the same as the public interest.

The Environment and Public Works Committee will eventually have to take up the authorization of a new highway bill, which is currently in the House. The proposed six-year $450 billion authorization is being held up over a discussion about how to pay for it. President Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood would like to hold off on a new bill for 18 months to give him time to develop a comprehensive highway construction plan. The current authorization expires at the end of September. Typically when there is a hold up on a major spending authorization, Congress keeps the money flowing by doing three month reauthorizations of current funding levels. LaHood would like Congress to just accept that he needs a year and a half and just do the reauthorization all at once.

There is also the question of how to pay for the new highway bill. There has been talk of raising the 18.4 cent per gallon gasoline tax by another ten cents or more, but this might not be the best idea in a recession. Additionally, Americans are sensitive to gasoline price increases. Once again, the country and our politicians have to make the difficult decision to pay for the infrastructure we desperately need.

Economic Development

The committee has jurisdiction over regional economic development commissions. One example I will offer -- mostly because I am familiar with it -- is the Appalachian Regional Commission. ARC was created in 1965 to help this historically impoverished region to improve its economy. The region stretches from northeastern Mississippi to New York's Southern Tier. Each year, ARC awards grants to projects intended to create jobs. A major component of economic development is highway construction. Few major employers will set up shop in an area that is inaccessible to reasonable highway systems.

I am most familiar with ARC's work in converting U.S. Route 15 between Williamsport, Pa. and Corning, N.Y. This is a major north-south corridor in the region. In 1962, a group of three businessmen from Mansfield, Pa. (my last home) started a local effort to improve what was essentially a two-lane mountain road. They rallied local support and lobbied Congress to get the highway project underway. Work to expand the road to a four -lane highway did not actually begin until the 1990s and there is still a six mile section in New York that needs to be finished. Regardless, there has been a marked reduction in fatal accidents and an increase in economic activity in the region and it will eventually become part of Interstate 99.

Here is a map showing the ARC region and some of the highway projects they have helped to fund over the years:

Appalachian Regional Commission highway projects

Naming buildings

Thousands of bills are introduced each Congress. Only a couple hundred actually pass. Of these, a large number are bills to name public buildings. This committee has the responsibility for reviewing such requests. Thus, this committee sees a relatively large percentage of its bills pass.

Do you want to see your name engraved on a federal building? Don't get your hopes up. Here are the guidelines for naming buildings:

The committee may not name a building, structure or facility for any living person, except former Presidents or former Vice Presidents of the United States, former Members of Congress over 70 years of age, former Justices of the United States Supreme Court over 70 years of age, or Federal judges who are fully retired and over 75 years of age or have taken senior status and are over 75 years of age.

In other words, very few people are even eligible until they die. Sorry about that.

Current legislation and hearings

This week's three hearings will focus on the impact of global warming legislation on agriculture/forestry, transportation, and the economy respectively. The website does not indicate if live webcasts will be available, but you can watch past hearings.

In addition, the committee has quite a few pending bills. The committee's website is very useful because they actually list all of the bills that have been referred to the committee. Here are a few examples of the bills currently in committee:

A bill to prohibit the use of stimulus funds for signage indicating that a project is being carried out using those funds. -- Judd Gregg

Writer's note: errrr... Okay.

A bill to amend title 23, United States Code, to direct the Secretary of Transportation to require that broadband conduit be installed as part of certain highway construction projects, and for other purposes. -- Amy Klobuchar

A bill to permit commercial vehicles at weights up to 129,000 pounds to use certain highways of the Interstate System in the State of Idaho which would provide significant savings in the transportation of goods throughout the Unites States, and for other purposes. -- Mike Crapo

A bill to amend the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to temporarily prohibit the Secretary of the Interior from considering global climate change as a natural or manmade factor in determining whether a species is a threatened or endangered species, and for other purposes. -- John Barrasso

A resolution recognizing the need for the Environmental Protection Agency to end decades of delay and utilize existing authority under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to comprehensively regulate coal combustion waste and the need for the Tennessee Valley Authority to be a national leader in technological innovation, low-cost power, and environmental stewardship. -- Barbara Boxer

Global Warming and Polar Bears

There is a debate about whether or not to list animals as endangered due to global warming. This was the genesis of Joe Scarborough hates polar bears. Global Warming is destroying the polar bears' habitat. Of course, if the government lists the polar bear as an endangered species due to global warming, then we are explicitly stating that global warming is caused by humans. Thus, despite the objections of the global warming deniers, we might actually have to address the problem.

The majority side of the committee has created an excellent page about the plight of the polar bear. Of course, there are some people who don't think global warming is real or that if is real that human activity has nothing to do with it. That calls for a polar bear face palm:

Polar Bear Facepalm Pictures, Images and Photos

And for more facepalm worthy material, we now turn to...

Minority home page

The official voice of the committee in Internet land is controlled by the majority party, but the minority gets their own page. There is a lot of lunacy here, but I want to highlight Ranking Member Inhofe's decision to post this: More Than 700 (Previously 650) International Scientists Dissent Over Man-Made Global Warming Claims. There is even a prominent link on the welcome page.

To find evidence that this "report" is disingenuous, see links here, here, and here.

This quote from the first source is telling:

the list was padded with TV weathermen, economists and so on and contained very few actual climate scientists.

I won't go any further into this, but we should be aware that such misinformation is being actively promoted by the Republican Party.


The subcommittee structure changed slightly in the 111th Congress. Most notably, children's health was given its own subcommittee. Here are the committees and their jurisdictions.

Children's Health: Amy Klobuchar is the chair and Lamar Alexander is the ranking member. The jurisdiction is:

Responsibility for policy issues in connection with protection of pregnant women, infants and children from environmental hazards

Clean Air and Nuclear Safety: Thomas R. Carper is the chair and David Vitter is the ranking member. The jurisdiction is:

Clean Air Act, Indoor Air, Tennessee Valley Authority, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Nuclear Plant Safety

Green Jobs and the New Economy: Bernie Sanders is the chair and Christopher "Kit" Bond is the ranking member. The jurisdiction is:

Responsibility for issues related to job creation through the development and deployment of “green” technologies and practices. Issues also include federal investment in technologies and practices that reduce the government’s carbon footprint or the emission of other pollutants, including technologies and practices that enhance energy efficiency, conservation, or renewable power sources.

Oversight: Sheldon Whitehouse is the chair and John Barrasso is the ranking member. Here is the jurisdiction:

Responsibility for oversight of agencies, departments, and programs within the jurisdiction of the full committee, and for conducting investigations within such jurisdiction

Those agencies include:

The committee's oversight extends to programs in five cabinet level departments and seven independent agencies, including the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration and the Coast Guard, the Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the GSA's Public Buildings Service, the Council on Environmental Quality, the civil works program of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Mississippi River Commission, and the nonperforming functions of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health: Frank Lautenberg is the chair and James Inhofe is the ranking member. The jurisdiction is:

Superfund and Brownfields, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), including recycling, Federal Facilities and interstate waste, Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), Chemical Safety Board, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), Environmental Justice and Risk Assessment

Transportation and Infrastructure: Max Baucus is the chair and George Voinovich is the ranking member. The jurisdiction is:

Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Public Buildings, Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), Economic Development Administration, Historic Preservation, National Dam Safety Program, Stafford Act and federal disaster relief programs, Mississippi River Commission, Green Buildings

Water and Wildlife: Ben Cardin is the chair and Mike Crapo is the ranking member. The jurisdiction is:

Clean Water Act, including wetlands; Safe Drinking Water Act; Coastal Zone Management Act; Invasive Species; Fisheries and Wildlife, Endangered Species Act (ESA), National Wildlife Refuges; Outer Continental Shelf Lands

That's it for this week. Next week will probably be the armed services committees and any movement on DADT unless something else comes up or I get a suggestion for something else.

For more about other committees, check out my previous work:
House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming
The Committee Primer
House Education and Labor Committee
Senate Finance Committee
Senate HELP Committee
Senate Judiciary Committee
House Energy and Commerce Committee
House Ways and Means Committee
House and Senate Appropriations Committees
House Intelligence Committee
House Judiciary Committee
House and Senate Ethics Committees
House Science and Technology Committee
House Financial Services Committee
House Rules Committee
The Role of Committees

Crossposted on Daily Kos, Congress Matters, Docudharma, and my own blog.

No comments: